Sivakami adorns the Singapore stage  
- Nirmala Chari 
April 10, 2008 

Mamallapuram, the ancient coastal city on the Bay of Bengal, is remembered today as the Pallava kings’ gift to Tamilnadu. Mamallapuram was the dream of the visionary ruler Mahendra Pallavan who reigned in the 6th / 7th century AD.  He was a ruler who was loved by his people and who worked tirelessly to maintain peace for his people for twenty-five years – when suddenly war loomed at his gates!  King Pulikesi of the neighboring Chalukya Empire, was almost at  the Pallava kingdom’s door step with an menacing army of 16,000 elephants, 12,000 cavalry and over a lakh of foot soliders.  News came as the army had reached Tungabadra River! Facing certain defeat, King Mahendra Pallava performed a magnificent feat of camouflage, secrecy and political outmaneuvering to prolong peace for ten years, only to lose his life in battle trying to save his beloved capital city Kanchi – the Pallava capital. 

This is the historical background that fuelled the brilliant mind of Kalki Krishnamurthy for his memorable story SIVAKAMIYIN SAPATAM. One of the most luminary writers of the 20th century, Kalki, as he was called with affection and awe, wove spellbinding narratives creating fictional characters located in actual historical times. 'Ponniyin Selvan' and 'Parthiban Kanavu' are memorable for the richness of their full blooded heroes and heroines located directly within actual historical events of South India. The stories, serialized in the immensely popular Tamil magazine Kalki, captured the imagination of an entire generation of readers who would wait avidly for the next issue of the magazine so that they could participate in the highs and lows of the wonderfully etched characters. A runaway hit for 12 years was his story of the dancing heroine of Kanchi, SIVAKMIYIN SAPATAM. The human life drama woven into the story was so believable and intense that millions were gripped with SIVAKAMI fever throughout these years, many actually learning to read and enjoy the Tamil language through the colourful saga of kings, war and power struggles.  
Across the Indian Ocean in nearby Singapore, the tale of Sivakami came to life in the majestic Victoria Theatre on September 14 and 15, 2007. Connecting the beloved tale to modern audiences, who barely have any name recall for Kalki or his protagonist Sivakami, choreographer Neila Sathyalingam presented her vision of the story that has fascinated her ever since she was a student in Kalakshetra in the 60s... Through a sweeping 3 hour dance-theatre spectacle titled SIVKAMI, the dual language operatic presentation contained English dialogues and Tamil lyrics. 

A multiple award winning choreographer and cultural icon in Singapore for over 30 years, Neila Sathyalingam has a penchant for large brush strokes, having prepared dancers and floats for the annual Chingay Chinese New Year processions down Orchard Road. The 65 actors and dancers filled Victoria Theatre's majestic proscenium stage with the throbbing spectacle of ambition, power, heroics and cunning. There were so many memorable scenes, the major one for this writer being the coming alive of the dance sculptures during the dream of sculptor Ayanar – a moment that sent a 'frisson' through the audience who then burst into spontaneous applause! 
Reflecting Singaporean multicultural elements of Chinese / Malay / Thai / Tamil craft and dance traditions into a cohesive whole is difficult enough. One sees so much of work today in the name of 'globalization' that is often a mere pastiche and an unconvincing mess. The intensity of Kalki's dialogue and the continuing horror of war and bloodshed created an authentic slice of history as well as painting a powerful contemporary  metaphor about the futility of battle. Through 21 scenes broken up into 4 acts with an intermission, international audiences – many of them Europeans – were introduced for the first time to a modern adaptation of this Tamil literary classic.   

Krishnakshi, the guest artiste from India, as Sivakami was simply superb. Through dance and dialogues, she held her own throughout the play. Dedicated as the epitome of beauty, grace and the very soul of the capital city Kanchi, Sivakami finds herself alone and abandoned through the vagaries of fate and her own pride. In her final days, she immerses herself in the service of Lord Ekambareswarar. Alone but not forgotten, an iconic image representing an era of grace that ended with an avoidable tragedy! Krishnakshi carried the character on her expressive shoulders with maturity and a magnificent stage presence.  

Selvanathan as Naganandhi was a convincing actor who conveyed his love for art and his affinity for scheming. In the pivotal role as the monk-brother of the marauding ruler Pulikesi, the struggle between his love of art and duty to his brother was convincingly portrayed. Noteworthy were his voice modulations during the furtive mourning of Sivakami – the 'Kanchi Sundari,' who swoons after dancing on the streets all day to save her people while his brother, the heartless King Pulikesi threatens to torture the citizens of Kanchi, was brilliant.  

Sivakumar as Pulikesi, Emperor of the Chalukyas, who ravages Kanchi and razes this enchanted city to the ground, was played with mature measure and restraint. As the symbol of ego and ravenous pride, Sivakumar maintained this clear diction throughout the play. The moment when he holds the conquered Sivakami's face in his hands and asks sarcastically, "Is it your youth or your art that makes my brother Naganandi forget all his duties?" was performed with the coiled anger of a merciless ruler. 

Pallava King Mahendravarman was played by actor Mathialagan who was truly outstanding. An award winning actor on stage and TV, Mathialagan brought great dignity to his all important role. As the spy Vajra Bahu and as king of Kanchi, he held his own and manipulated his conversations with seasoned maturity. As the king he was regal, as the spy/strategist he conveyed the zeal and manipulative mind of an informer.  His body language was convincing as was his dialogue delivery in English. A pivotal double role played to perfection that gave audiences a character who was so deeply invested in his kingdom and his people. Through his portrayal, the rapt audience felt his palpable love for his capital city eulogized by poets in these memorable words... 
"Pushpeshi Jaati, Purusheshu Vishnu 
Naareeshu Rambha, Nagareshu Kanchi" 

The crowd scenes during battles were particularly well directed, with entries and exits always neat and well rehearsed. This spoke of the choreographer’s vast experience with a large cast and artistes from varied linguistic and cultural backgrounds.  

The Ravindra Drama group of Singapore collaborated with Neila Sathyalingam's Apsara Arts dancers for this mammoth venture. The mélange of dance and theatre, of spoken text and the sung/danced lyric never outshone one another. This delicate balance was maintained throughout, heightened by the multicultural orchestral score composed by L Krishnan and Aravinth Kumaraswamy, gripping dialogues by Chennai Koothu-P-Pattarai's  Kumaravel, and lavish costumes designed by Neila Sathyalingam.  

The two performances were graced by two special dignitaries. On opening night it was Mr. Tharman Shanmugharatnam, Minister for Education and Second Minister of Finance. On the second day, Mr. Tommy Koh, Chairman National Heritage Board.  Both men were lavish in their praise of Neila Sathyalingam’s unswerving zeal for the promotion of Indian dance and music in the rapidly changing face of Singapore. 
The spectacular scenography for SIVAKAMI spoke of the 2-year preparation Neila Sathyalingam and her able team had invested for this production. For Neila, this is her swan song, or so she says. A student of Kalakshetra for more than 20 years during the most creative time of its founder Rukmini Arundale, Neila imbibed "Atthai's" pan-Asian aesthetic while the legendary Ramayana series was being created and performed. Always open to new influences within the parameters of what is 'auchitya' or appropriate, all of Neila's earlier productions reflect her open mindedness and her love of new ideas and approaches to dance creation. In fact, she is a rare guru who always watches the works of younger dancers in any genre – classical, traditional, modern and contemporary! SIVAKAMI's multicultural cast of Malays, Chinese and Indians also drew on each culture's specialization in martial arts, movement vocabularies and costume elements, which gave the show a truly Singaporean soul. 

Neila is acutely conscious of her Tamil roots and the rapidly declining readership among Singaporean and global youth for classical literature. Through SIVAKAMIYIN SAPATAM, she hoped to make her own favourite serial reawaken her personal beliefs and love of India, the land that is 'bhakti naadu,' 'pannbu naadu,' 'maanam maryada naadu.'  

For this writer, having witnessed so many dance and music performances over 50 years in Tamilnadu, the diasporic verve and old-world commitment of the dancers and actors were most touching. Through dance, music and theatre, these Singaporeans maintain contact with the motherland they have all left behind many generations ago.